15 January 2006
New East Asia forum is fuelling optimism
In 2006, East Asia faces several old as well as new challenges. In addition to issues such as terrorism, separatist insurgencies, nuclear proliferation, and expensive energy supplies, there is the challenge of creating a pan-Asian free trade bloc that would lay the groundwork for an East Asian community and eventually an East Asian union.
To deal successfully with this, Asian countries need first to tackle tensions affecting the region’s stability, particularly among the Northeast Asian economies of China, Japan, and South Korea. Without improving relations among these powers and riding them of their wartime memories, the region may not be able to move forward. In other words, a stable Northeast Asia facilitates integration and means better economic prospects for all.
Asian nations also need to work harder to upgrade the status of a number of less developed countries among their grouping. The challenge here is not how to promote these partners’ economic status. It is rather how to encourage their regimes to launch considerable political reforms and abandon violations of human rights. The best example is the challenge posed by Myanmar, whose military regime still refuses any sort of political openness and consequently causes embarrassment for its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
East Asia, however, is lucky to have a numbers of platforms which can be used for meaningful dialogues and confidence-building. ASEAN is one of these platforms. Another is the ‘ASEAN plus 3” forum, a grouping that includes ASEAN’s 10 members plus China, Japan, and South Korea, and holds summit meetings, usually on the sidelines of the annual ASEAN summit.
In December last year, a historic summit in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, comprising leaders from the ASEAN countries, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand, launched a new forum for annual talks on strategic issues concerning East Asia.
This has fuelled optimism among Asians and was viewed by many as an important step for several reasons. The joining of the grouping by the three Northeast Asian nations serves as an indication of their willingness to come to terms with their feuds. This also would lessen the possibility of the Sino-Japanese rivalry intensifying to an extent that it leads to ASEAN members taking sides with one against the other.
The inclusion of India into the mainstream of East Asia regional integration means that the definition of East Asia has been expanded to link the two emerging Asian giants (China and India) for better employment of their resources and economic and scientific capabilities in the region’s development, progress, and security.
The inclusion of Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, serves as evidence that the region’s leaders no longer emphasize on Asian cultural or ethnic identity as a pre-condition for joining their groupings. It indicates that they recognize the consequences of the globalization tide and are ready to give East Asia a new face. This is unlike the situation 15 years ago when Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, then Malaysia’s prime minister, first called for an Asian union on the European Union model. Malaysia under Mahathir repeatedly rejected any role by Australia or New Zealand in shaping the future of East Asia, not only because of their European heritage but also because of their deep involvement in Western strategies. This also points to a development in Jakarta’s policy, which has until recently opposed the inclusion of Australia into any Asian integration plan on the background of Canberra’s post-9/11 announcement that it could launch pre-emptive strikes against terrorist bases in the neighbouring countries.
Analysts believe the first problem to be faced by the new grouping is its future relationship with ASEAN and “ASEAN plus 3”. In other words, the problem would be how to promote cooperation and coordination with the other two bodies without any functional clash, contradiction, or inconsistency. Rivalry among some members over who should be the driving force of the grouping is another problem.
Moreover, the sixteen members will have to decide soon on whether Russia can be part of the new forum. Russia is reportedly keen on joining with the hope of re-establishing its diminished international influence. While it may be welcomed by some members on the pretext of counter-balancing the possible dominance of China - the same has been said to justify the inclusion of India – or because of interest in Russian oil and gas, others may refuse, arguing that too many parties would complicate the whole process or that Moscow should first meet several criteria and be assessed on them.
*Academic researcher and lecturer on Asian affairs